Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, March 22, 2018, 11:30 a.m.
Science fiction is hardly my field of expertise. I just happened to dream up this scenario overnight and felt compelled to write it all down in the form of a short story.
Dagwood Brandt made a fine living preaching against preaching. The executive director of AFG (Americans for Freedom from God) was addressing an audience of 5,000 non-believers in the Zenith Municipal Civic Center.
“Let me stress, friends, the importance of the American Dream,” he said. “Our members vote in both parties. They serve our country’s military. By standing up for the self-evident truth that freedom of religion means freedom from religion, let us all stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but, at the end, let us omit the restrictive phrase ‘under God’ from the exit.”
I pledge allegiance / To the flag / Of the United States of America / And to the republic / for which it stands / One nation / indivisible / With liberty and justice for all.
Dagwood felt flattered when he noticed that some people in the audience swooned and fainted. Perhaps it was the opposite of the Holy Spirit.
Sir Harold Hutton, founder and chief executive officer of Eton Analytica, calmly suggested to his executive secretary, Edith Trumbull, that Reginald Hughes, executive director of the international corporation’s PRP (Population Records Project), be summoned to his office.
“In the flesh, Sir Harold?” she asked.
“In the flesh, Edith. This is rather untidy matter requiring personal interaction in my estimation.”
“Very well, sir.”
Miss Trumbull put on her thinking cap, literally, and sent brain waves to Hughes, who was on assignment in Buenos Aires. He was at lunch when the message arrived, chatting with Argentina’s commerce minister, an old friend. Hughes explained to Porfirio Cruz that he was wanted immediately back in London. They shook hands and embraced, as was the Argentinian custom.
“Ah, my friend, it was always a small world,” Hughes said. “Now it has become tiny.”
Returning to the Eton Analytica’s Buenos Aires tower required twenty minutes. Returning to London took fifteen seconds. Teletransportation was not only instant. Over time, it had proven cheaper.
Miss Trumbull told Hughes to go right in because Sir Harold was expecting him.
Hutton was reading something or other and looked over the top of his reading glasses – they were such a quaint anachronism of his – as Hughes walked in.
“Do sit down, Reg.”
Hughes did so. Hutton looked calm, but he seldom became agitated. “We’ve gotten ourselves into a bit of a testy patch,” he said.
“We’ve had a bit of a problem with the PCI program,” Hutton said.
The worldwide public knew the PCI (Population Control Implant) as the CLI (Convenient Life Implant). For twenty-five years it had been inserted in the necks of children at birth. Over the intervening period of time, the bulk of the world’s population had agreed to be implanted voluntarily. It made their lives easier. It registered them to vote. It voted their wishes. It paid their bills. It drove their vehicles. Life without it had become obsolete.
The secret was that it also controlled the length of their lives, though randomly.
“Yesterday evening, in Zenith, Wisconsin, an audience of some five thousand adherents attended a speech delivered by Dagwood Brandt. Do you know of him, Reg?”
“Why, yes, Sir Harold. He’s a rather well-known inspirational figure in the States. What is it? Americans for Freedom from God? He rather plays against type, this Brandt fellow,” Hughes said. “He preaches against preachers, as it were.”
“It was rather an unconventional speech,” Hutton said. “As opposed to providing the audience an initial means of participation, this Brandt fellow waited until the middle of his speech, at which point he directed the crowd to recite the American Pledge of Allegiance, but to omit the part of the pledge where the words ‘under God’ are used.”
“I don’t catch your drift, sir.”
“In audience of roughly five thousand, thirteen dropped dead.”
“I see,” Hughes said. “Oh, dear.”
The implants had been inserted in billions of the world’s citizens with an ulterior, carefully guarded, motive. Global security meant maintaining adequate resources to feed, house, and transport the planet’s growing population. The PCI was an effective instrument of zero population growth. It monitored glitches in the brains of humans. Each was programmed to identify a habit oft repeated. If this habit – hundreds of thousands were installed, randomly assigned – wasn’t completely and accurately processed, it was as if the subject forgot his password, to compare it to an archaic term. If he or she forgot his or her password, he or she died suddenly, painlessly, and, almost always, without undue notice. Sir Harold had tirelessly and secretly worked to persuade the world’s rulers to adopt the PCIs. Most of its victims were old and susceptible to dementia. As their mental proficiency diminished, the likelihood of a glitch increased. The lives of the living were thus enhanced, unburdened by a need to care for the infirm and sickly.
“Do you catch my drift now, Reg?” Sir Harold asked.
“The thirteen who died were those who had randomly been programmed with the words of the American pledge,” Hughes said. “When they skipped ‘under God,’ they simply died. Forgive me, sir. I’m still digesting the implications.”
“Do you find it odd, Reg, that such an inordinately high percentage of people at a single gathering would be susceptible to this one glitch among millions that are randomly assigned to the individual implants?”
“I find it impossible, sir,” Hughes said.
“Furthermore, could it be that, somehow, through some unexplained interaction between the brain and the device, the number of glitches has somehow spread or multiplied?” Hutton asked.
“No, sir. It cannot be.”
“I’m afraid, Reg, that it apparently can,” Hutton said.
“The program has always worked perfectly,” Hughes said. “The most common casualty has been among the religiously devout. Typically, the subject becomes drowsy once in bed. Let’s say this person’s randomly installed glitch is the Lord’s Prayer. He may skip over part of it as he tumbles off to sleep. The second most common casualty is in those who are impaired from the use of alcohol or drugs. These deaths are routinely ascribed to excessive drinking or a drug overdose.”
“Yet this instance involves not the religious but the irreligious. Not the addicted but the sober,” Hutton observed. “Not the preferable candidates for winnowing out of the population, but the ones society would deem worthy of long and fruitful lives.”
Hughes’ face was ashen.
“My God,” he said. “What have we done?”
“What have you done, Reg?” Hutton asked.
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